Melbourne | Newborns can not imitate adults, a new study has found, contradicting decades old research that suggest babies can mimic hand gestures, facial expressions or vocal sounds in the first few weeks after birth.
After testing young infants repeatedly over their first couple of months, researchers found no evidence that very young infants are capable of imitation. Numerous studies from the 1980s and 90s indicated no imitation by newborns, while others claimed it was there, said Virginia Slaughter of the University of Queensland in Australia.
The main limitation of earlier work is that researchers presented infants with a limited number of gestures, Slaughter said. For example, in most studies, researchers only tested infants’ responses to an adult poking out her tongue and opening her mouth, she said. In many cases, the babies did poke their tongues out more after they saw an adult’s tongue poking.
However, the researchers did not have adults make any additional gestures or expressions, to see whether infants were truly imitating the adult’s behaviour. In the new study, researchers presented 106 infants with nine social and two non-social models and scored their responses at one, two, six and nine weeks of age.
The results showed that the infants did not imitate any of the behaviours that they observed. In response to the grownups they saw, they were just as likely to produce a different gesture as they were to produce a matching one. The findings now suggest that imitation is not an innate behaviour, but one that is learned in babies’ first months.
In fact, babies might learn to imitate other people based on watching other people imitate them. Infants aren’t born with the ability to copy what other people do, but they acquire that skill during the first months of life, Slaughter said. One possibility is that being imitated plays a role in this acquisition, she said.
In another study from our lab, we found that parents imitate their babies once every two minutes on average; this is a powerful means by which infants can learn to link their gestures with those of another person, Slaughter said. The researchers are now analysing additional data from their study, extending into the second year of life. They say they want to know when infants really do begin to imitate and what factors may contribute to the emergence of this skill.